During the last week, a group of us held our monthly ‘Focolare/Word of Life’ meeting at one of the local prisons with about 25 prisoners present. We read as usual, on the computer ‘Power Point’ and text, the commentary on the Gospel extract, chosen for the ‘Word of Life’ for June, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10: 39). All those present are free to comment and share their experience of what God’s Word means in our lives; the first to comment was a prisoner who had read the extract.  He said: “When Jesus said these words he was thinking of martyrdom”, and then posed the question: “What does the Church think of martyrdom today?”

In using the word ‘martyrdom’, the prisoner was referring to the ‘modern martyrs’, most often identified as such, in today’s media – ‘suicide bombers’ in other words. Using the term, he had no idea that the modern era has seen more Christian (mostly Catholic) martyrs, than at any time in the Church’s history. These true, Christian martyrs, who never make the headlines, are the real ‘heroes’ of today’s world. I say ‘true’ because the true martyr – the real martyr never kills anyone else; there is no hate, only love in his or her heart, a heart full of love for God and neighbour.

On the other hand, ‘suicide bombers’ are, no doubt, ’courageous’ in giving away their own lives, but, we are then driven to question what kind of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘lack of human compassion’ has entered their hearts, for, together with their own deaths, they then want to kill as many others as possible – in some misguided furtherance of their cause, ideology, whatever? It is right, also, to question ‘what kind of injustice they, perhaps, suffer to make them want to act in this way?’ Possibly, they suffer such deep injustice, under some oppressive regime, that it leaves them –and people like them – feeling utterly helpless, with no acceptable alternative but a ‘murderous’ death. In his own time, Jesus, too, could well have been driven to the same conclusion – even acted in similar fashion! But, could he, in reality?  He was the Son of God, and so he couldn’t – he didn’t!  He gave away his life in meekness, love and compassion, thus accepting his fate for the salvation of all – a lonely and ignominious death – his reasons well hidden from the ‘madding crowd’ and known only to the ‘chosen’ few, and coming to life only because of the remarkable Church founded by them.   His followers, with faith, came to know he was raised from the dead and alive among them.

Here in Britain, a land of relative freedom, it is difficult for us to understand how ‘suicide bombers’ can believe they are contributing to our world, in any positive fashion. We should pray that God, in his infinite mercy, will forgive them the murders they commit, even though they may feel justified in their actions. I suspect they must be able to find some justification, somehow? Rumour has it some of these people are under the influence of drugs, though others say they can sometimes be at peace, smiling, cheerful and friendly, as they blow themselves up – together  with as many bystanders as possible. If I were the ‘angel of darkness’, I would be rejoicing at any ‘devilish’ method of domination, control, power, whether it comes from an oppressive regime – or a reaction to it – such as ‘suicide bombing’. ‘Suicide bombing’ seems to portray courage, but you can tell there is something very wrong, just by the ‘fruits’ it produces – fear, anger and the terrible sufferings of innocent people. The ‘real’ martyr who dies silently, giving his life for the God, in whom he or she believes, bears other fruits, including compassion, bravery, the strengthening of peoples’ convictions, and a great coherence in the community or society to which he or she belongs; and that greater coherence can be of ‘long term’ effect.  In saying this I point to Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was beatified on 6 June 2010, just two weeks ago in Poland, some 26 years after his assassination on October 19, 1984, by the communists. His death contributed to the end of the Communist regime in much of Eastern Europe.

Father Jerzy Popiełuszko

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, wrote Tertullian (c. 160 – 220 A. D.), one of the early Fathers of the Church, and so we can look forward to a great “re-generation” of the Church, in the light of so much love, given by people who are the unknown, and unsung, heroes of our age. One group, among hundreds of thousands, were the seminarians in Rwanda, who belonged to both the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes – forty of them – wantonly slain by a murderous gang in 1994. They refused to separate themselves into the two ethnic groups, when ordered to do so, and forty died together, as a witness to their love of God and each other. On 11 June, in Rome, it was very moving to watch, on the internet, three who survived the ‘massacre’, all three now ordained priests and hear their testimony of forgiveness; one of them was shot several times, but lived; another, seven years after the killings, went to a parish, in Rwanda, to serve the people, and recognised, in the congregation, those who had been the murderers of his companions; in his testimony, he said that God gave him the grace to forgive them.

At this point, I want to perform a ‘leap of faith’ and take you to a completely different era – different in time – but related in terms of theme, as you will see. I love St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher and, very much connected with them, Katharine of Aragon. Often, in our houses, we see their portraits, and John Fisher looks dignified and noble, but also rather thin and emaciated. He was Bishop of Rochester, and the only Bishop, at the time of King Henry VIII, who was prepared to stand his ground, against the King, when Henry cut most of the Church, in England, away from its stock. John Fisher, was confessor to Katharine of Aragon, and their common friendship makes me wonder if Katharine’s steadfastness gave him courage. St. John Fisher gave his life, out of love for God, his neighbour and the Church on 22nd June 1535. St. Thomas More, was appointed Chancellor of England by the same King Henry VIII, and he gave his life for the same cause on 6th July 1535.

St. Thomas More              Katharine of Aragon             St. John Fisher

The positive part of the Word of Life “Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” is the second half: we are able to find Life – the Life that Jesus wanted us to know and to experience, by first losing our life. The actual commentary of Chiara Lubich referring to martyrdom is:

 “When Jesus said these words he was thinking of martyrdom. We, like every Christian, have to be ready in order to follow the Master and stay faithful to the Gospel, to lose our lives, dying if needs be, even a violent death. With that, by God’s grace, we will be given true life. Jesus was the first who ‘lost his life’, and he regained it glorified. He warned us not to be afraid of those who ‘kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (Mt 10:28).

(Apropos martyrdom, there is another kind of martyrdom called a ‘White Martyrdom’, consisting not of a single violent death, but rather, the daily dying to self, that is part of a holy life. This could be illustrated by many saints who are confessors, rather than martyrs.  It is something that is ‘normal’ for any Christian life.)

Katharine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII.  During her marriage, she had at least six pregnancies, but only one child – Mary – survived to become Queen, after Henry’s death. Largely because his 18 years marriage to Katharine had failed to produce a male heir to the throne, Henry decided to repudiate her in favour of Anne Boleyn.  The King maintained he should not have been allowed to marry Katharine as she was his elder brother, Arthur’s wife, and this was against Canon Law.  In order to marry,  Pope Julius granted Henry and Katharine a dispensation, on the grounds that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.  Katharine, never relinquishing her stance, was always to stand by her vow that this was the case,  but Henry – his assertions built on very shaky ground – continued his repudiation by taking Anne Boleyn as his wife.  In this dispute, Henry versus Katharine, all the evidence appears to support Katharine’s avowed position – the people certainly supported her and believed she had been truthful throughout.   However, her place usurped by Anne, Katharine became virtually removed from her place as Queen of England, from 1525 until her death in 1536, though she remained popular with the people of England, largely because of her ‘transparent’ goodness and integrity.

There is a second important aspect to her life.  Katharine always refused to accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and considered herself, as did most of England and Europe, the King’s rightful wife and Queen until her death.  In proclaiming himself Supreme Head of the Church in England, Henry simply defied Pope Clement VII, who refused Henry his nullity. But, these were dangerous times, and any attempt to antagonize Henry was tantamount to courting disaster, as Thomas More and John Fisher found to their cost. Both were executed for High Treason; they did not agree with what the King was doing – and said so, in forthright terms.   Likewise, Katharine could well have met the same fate.  Putting herself against the King, she stood by the truth – displaying again stalwart courage and integrity –  and was banished for her stance.  She refused to go against the truth: she lost her life, but then found it.

Katharine was intelligent, attractively very pretty, and religious. Saint Thomas More was to reflect, later in her lifetime, that in regards to her appearance: “There were few women who could compete with the Queen [Katharine] in her prime.” She learned to speak, read and write in Spanish and Latin, and spoke French and Greek, Spanish and English. She had domestic skills, such as needlepoint, lacemaking, embroidery, music and dancing. The great scholar Erasmus would later say that Katharine “loved good literature which she had studied with success since childhood”. Education among women became fashionable, partly because of Catherine’s influence.

She was loyal always to her husband. In 1513, Katharine fell pregnant yet again. Henry appointed her Regent when he went to France on a military campaign. When the Scots invaded, they were defeated at the Battle of Flodden Field, with Katherine addressing the army, and riding north in full armour with some of the troops, despite being heavily pregnant at the time. She sent a letter to Henry, along with the bloodied coat of the King of Scots, James IV, who died in the battle.

Katharine died, relatively, young – at just forty nine – after living a life of deprivation and isolation for years. A month before she died she wrote the following to her husband, Henry VIII.

My most dear lord, King and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe thee forces me, my case being such, to commend myself to thee, and to put thou in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of thy soul which thou ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of thy body, for the which thou hast cast me into many calamities and thyself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon thee everything, and I desire to devoutly pray God that He will pardon thee also. For the rest, I commend unto thee our daughter Mary, beseeching thee to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat thee also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all mine other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be un-provided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire thou above all things.

Katharine the Quene.

This, I suggest, is the mark of a great lady, who had – by then – died a ‘thousand’ martyrdoms, at the actions of her wayward husband; he seemed bent on his own human ‘solutions’ to the difficulties he faced rather than relying on a loving trust in God, portrayed by his first wife, Katharine. Her destiny was closely linked to that of John Fisher and Thomas More, both of whom were put to death because of ‘The King’s Great Matter’, i.e. his repudiation of Katharine of Aragon, because he wanted a marriage annulment, from the Pope – and that he never got!

Katharine discovered the ‘Life’ that Jesus speaks of in the ‘Word of Life’, despite the sufferings caused by the politics and self-centredness of people around her. The letter above is witness to it, and so are the testimonies since her death. It is said that, at her funeral, when she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral, 70,000 people lined the route out of respect for her. Furthermore, to this day, there are always flowers at her tomb, and a constant stream of people to honour her memory.  She remains a kind of legend in our country. Should you ever have a chance to visit Peterborough and its cathedral, you can verify this for yourself. You will see, there, her place of rest, with the letters above her tomb, “Katharine Queen of England”.

Never was there any hint of the mind of a ‘suicide bomber’ in her example; rather, her life was very much concentrated on the following of her Master and Lord, Jesus. Small wonder, it was, then, that after the break with Rome and the Church, King Henry feared that Katharine might be the centre of a popular uprising. She has not been declared a Saint, but in any study of her life, the reader may well be struck by the similarities with those who lead holy lives – who die to self, day by day – a loyal queen, a great lady – steadfast and true to her calling – imbued with inner strength and integrity – a lady who would not deviate from the path of life which lead her to suffering and death – and to the loss of her life, in order to find it.

Perhaps we too can face the challenges of life with a bit more peace and gentleness of heart, with the examples of Thomas More, John Fisher and Katharine of Aragon to encourage us, and be mindful of many of our fellow Christians, mostly Catholics, who are suffering severe persecution, in our own time, and losing their lives, only to find them.